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Westway neighborhood honors advocate's crime-reducing legacy

Alex Rodriguez, 9, leaves his handprints on a planter at an entrance to the playground area in the Westway neighborhood. Alex and other Westway children decorated the planters at the Westway Community Day of Action event Friday. Former neighborhood resident Jimmy Box, who helped transform the area, was honored. - Jacinda Howard, The Mirror
Alex Rodriguez, 9, leaves his handprints on a planter at an entrance to the playground area in the Westway neighborhood. Alex and other Westway children decorated the planters at the Westway Community Day of Action event Friday. Former neighborhood resident Jimmy Box, who helped transform the area, was honored.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard, The Mirror

In an annual tradition, community volunteers gathered Friday to show Federal Way's Westway neighborhood some loving care.

Approximately 90 volunteers from Federal Way AmeriCorps and Habitat for Humanity Seattle/South King County, along with Westway homeowners and others convened in the neighborhood near Southwest 334th Street. Volunteers painted fences, picked up trash and planted flowers during the annual Westway Community Day of Action. The group also took some time to pay its respects to a long-time neighborhood advocate and leader, Jimmy Box, who helped transform the neighborhood — once known for its criminal activity — over the past decade. Box passed away late last year.

"He loved this area," friend and Westway resident Raymond Cochran said. "He loved these people, these kids."

Just a few years ago, Westway was a different place. Illegal dog fights, a gang presence and drug deals were not uncommon. The neighborhood picked up a bad reputation that it still struggles to shake loose. Westway was a rough place to reside back then, Cochran said.

"A few bad people held this community hostage," said Diane Gallegos, Habitat for Humanity Seattle/South King County chief operating officer.

Fed-up homeowners such as Box began taking back their neighborhood. Box helped AmeriCorps set up an after-school program nine years ago. The program is still going strong.

For the past nine years, a day of action has taken place in the neighborhood, Federal Way AmeriCorps director Monda Holsinger said. In 2002, Build the Bridge Community Coalition was formed. AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Westway residents and the city combined forces to drive out crime and improve living conditions in the neighborhood. Westway residents have pitched in along the way.

"This is a beautiful community," Holsinger said. "There may be lots of pain here, but there's beautiful people."

The partners have accomplished a lot over the years. Crime has decreased significantly. Habitat for Humanity, in the past six years, has rebuilt, restored or renovated about 30 of 136 Westway homes. The building of a transitional home for residents to live while their homes were repaired and made sustainable helped in the process. Police opened a substation at the entrance of the neighborhood and the city installed street lights. With the help of volunteers, a neighborhood playground was built from the ground up last year.

"None of this work could have been done without the strong Westway Homeowners Association," AmeriCorps supervisor Jackie Jamison said.

The playground is now well-used. It served as the gathering spot for the tribute to Box. Hundreds of current and former Westway residents, accompanied by their families, showed up for the event. After residents offered a few words of appreciation for Box, a plaque engraved with his name was nailed to a planter at the entrance of Westway's play area.

The children of the neighborhood were also honored. AmeriCorps members helped dozens of kids dip their palms in colored paint and leave their handprints on many of the park's planters. Numerous children fundraised last year to gather funds to help build the playground they now regularly use.

Despite hardships, Westway's transformation is an ongoing, deeply personal venture for many involved. The community day of action is just one way to show the residents they are valuable Federal Way citizens and they are cared about, Holsinger said.

"My goal has always been to show (the residents) their value," she said.

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